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There are not many old Korean love tales, but everyone knows the story of Chunhyang. In 1892, the first Korean to visit Paris, Hong Jong-u, helped publish a French version of the story of Chunhyang. Titled “Fragrant Springtime” (the meaning of “Chunhyang”), it is the first Korean story ever published in a western language. A couple of years later, a second, more developed novel set in Korea was published, “A Dead Tree Blossoms.” It includes parts of the story of Sim Cheong and her blind father, but is very different in many unexpected ways. In 1919 an English translation of it was published in the US, but nobody noticed it. In this new book, the French version of “Chunhyang” has been translated into English and is published with the 1919 English text of “A Dead Tree Blossoms” and a couple of other Korean love tales translated a hundred or more years ago. Interestingly, the two main stories both express sharp criticism of corrupt officials and a strong concern for social justice.



ISBN 978-1-62412-069-5

Compiled by

Brother Anthony of Taizé

US$ 15.00 / KRW \ 9,500

ROMANTIC TALES from Old Korea Compiled by

Brother Anthony of Taizé

Romantic Tales from Old Korea Copyright © 2016 by Brother Anthony of Taizé All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the publisher. Published in 2016 by Seoul Selection U.S.A., Inc. 4199 Campus Drive, Suite 550, Irvine, CA 92612 Phone: 949-509-6584 / Seoul office: 82-2-734-9567 Fax: 949-509-6599 / Seoul office: 82-2-734-9562 Email: Website: ISBN: 978-1-62412-069-5 51500 Library of Congress Control Number: 2016942818 Printed in the Republic of Korea


Compiled by

Brother Anthony of TaizĂŠ


Introduction 7

Fragrant Springtime 13

Charan 57

The Plucky Maiden 70

The Boxed-Up Governor 75

A Dead Tree Blossoms 81

Editor’s Note We tried to preserve the original translations of the stories insofar as it was possible but have made some edits for the convenience of the contemporary reader. For the Romanization of Korean words and names, we have applied the Revised Romanization method instead of the McCune-Reischauer system that was used in the original text.


Old Korea did not, it seems, spend much time reading romantic tales. People might have preferred more amusing tales of rogues and ghosts. Perhaps it is because the men were not allowed to “fall in love� with a view to marriage, since their bride was chosen for them by their family when they were still children. There is only one traditional love story that everyone knows, and that is the story of Chunhyang. It is true that in the story of Sim Cheong, the emperor falls in love with her and marries her when she emerges from the lotus bud, but that is only an episode, not a developed story. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the tale of Chunhyang was the first Korean story to be published in the West. Its publication in France was only one episode in the highly dramatic series of events marking the life of the Korean Hong Jong-u. The son of an impoverished member of a


noble, yangban* family living on a remote southern island, he suddenly appeared in Paris on Christmas Eve 1890, declaring that he wished to study France’s legal system in order to help his country modernize. He looked very fine and rather exotic in the formal high-class Korean dress he always wore, but he did not have any money. He had earned the fare by working for several years in Japan. Instead of studying law, he ended up working in the museum of Asian art that had recently been founded by Émile Guimet, and had received quantities of objects from Korea, thanks to the ethnographer Charles Varat and the diplomat Victor Collin de Plancy. Hong Jong-u was offered a job helping to catalogue these collections while he learned some French. He was introduced to two Belgian brothers, the writers Joseph Henri Honoré Boex (1856–1940) and Séraphin Justin François Boex (1859–1948), who were living in Paris and publishing works of fiction under the shared pseudonym J.-H. Rosny. They are now celebrated as founding fathers of “science-fiction” but they produced other kinds of popular literature as well. In 1892, they published a tiny volume illustrated with delicate engravings, titled Printemps parfumé (“Fragrant springtime”). This they presented in the preface as being the translation of a Korean text, made “with the help of the only scholar from that country ever to come to France, M. Hong-Tjyong-Ou (Hong Jong-u in modern spelling), a Korean noble whose intelligent goodness we have been able to appreciate during this work.” Now Printemps parfumé is the French translation of the name * Yangban refers to the noble classes during the Joseon period. The yangban, literally “two orders,” were divided into civil administrators known as the munban, and martial officers known as the muban.


“Chunhyang” and the book contains a version of the famous tale, but with some slight variations from that familiar in Korea as a sung pansori text. The identity of the “Korean text” which they claim to have used has not been clearly established, although it might have been among the Korean books in the museum’s library. Neither do we know how they worked with Hong in preparing their version of the tale. How many of the details are due to him and how many are by the Belgians’ inventions? Hong Jong-u left Paris on July 23, 1893, returned to Japan and there befriended the Korean reformist, Kim Ok-gyun,* who was living in exile. They set out for Shanghai in March 1894, and on the day after their arrival Hong shot Kim in his hotel room, killing him outright. Hong told the Chinese that he was acting under orders from the Korean king and they sent him back to Seoul with the corpse. There he was given a hero’s welcome and in later years rose to the highest ranks in the government. The Japanese press deplored the death of Kim and the Chinese protection of the assassin, for Japan was already preparing to go to war with China for control of Korea. The Chinese press gave a more nuanced account of Hong’s deed, and soon Hong’s friends in France learned that (for some unclear reason) he had become notorious as a “political assassin.” They were bewildered. In 1895, long after Hong’s return to the East and his rise to notoriety, another Korean tale, Le Bois sec refleuri, (“A dead tree blossoms”) was published in the Bibliothèque de vulgarisation, an imprint of the Annales du Musée Guimet. This time, Hong’s * Kim Ok-gyun was a politician who advocated modernist reforms and Western influence during the late Joseon era.


name stood alone as the author and translator. This book has quite a complicated set of prefatory texts, including an odd outline of Korean history and an exchange of letters between Hong and a French priest. But most interesting of all is the tale itself. It tells a far more complex story than that of Chunhyang; its origins are not clear, there is no obvious single Korean book that can be termed its source. The delightful story of the children of two families is vividly written in perfect French, and the plot strands are skilfully interwoven. Surely, Hong could not have produced it all alone? Part of the tale is recognizable as deriving from the story of Sim Cheong and her blind father, but it is very unlike the standard version that Koreans know. Another episode, with a wicked magistrate foiled by a secret envoy, clearly derives from the story of Chunhyang. To make things yet more complex, there exists in the archives of the Musée Guimet a letter from an otherwise unknown Louis Ningler, protesting that the museum should not have published the story under Hong’s name. He himself, he claims, was the true author, having been commissioned to prepare a French version of the Korean story by Hong himself during his years in France. He was too late, for the text was published and it sank from sight, having failed to find readers. One final episode came many years later, in 1919, when the otherwise unknown Charles Mundy Taylor published an English translation of Hong’s story at the Gorham Press in Boston, U.S.A., a small press which published books at their authors’ expense. It appeared in English with the mysterious title Winning Buddha’s Smile and was not noticed, it seems. Copies are rare. So this present volume contains a translation of Printemps 10

parfumé and Taylor’s version of Le bois sec refleuri. Between them stand three short tales from James Gale’s Im Bang and Yi Ryuk. Korean Folk Tales: Imps, Ghosts, and Fairies, (1913). Since these are translations of texts from an earlier age, the names of the main characters are deliberately kept as close as possible to the forms used in the original texts, with notes indicating significant differences with conventional spellings etc. We hope that readers will enjoy reading these very unique romantic stories.


Fragrant Springtime


nce upon a time, there lived in the province of Jeolla-do, in the town of Namwon, a mandarin named Yi Teung who had a son, Yi Mongryong,* who was sixteen years old. Yi Mongryong was among the ablest young scholars of the country and he grew daily in knowledge through his studies. One morning, on a beautiful, clear day, the sun was shining, the wind was whispering softly in the trees, shaking the leaves whose shadows trembled on the ground, while the birds flying through the branches were calling to each other and singing in choirs on the branches; the tips of the willow trees trailed in the streams as if eager to catch fish, butterflies were flitting from flower to flower, and Yi Mongryong, watching all these things, called out to his servant: “Look at this admirable nature,” he said, “I don’t have the heart to study when I see the world of nature so beautiful, when I think that even someone who lives up to the very limits of life, who lives for a century, only lives thirty-six thousand days, with most of them doomed to sorrow, * Written as “I-Toreng” in the original text. “Toreng” was a designation reserved for boys and young men in noble families. Fragrant Springtime


poverty or disease. Ah! Would it not be better to live at least a few perfectly happy days? Why always work and study? It is such a beautiful day; I want to go out for a walk. Show me a place to visit in this city.” The servant told him that he should go to Gwanghallu,* a pavilion situated in a garden by a bridge, from where can be seen a splendid panorama of mountains and rivers. “I want to see that place,” answered Yi Mongryong, “so take me there.” The servant duly took him. They soon reached the bridge, entered the pavilion of Gwanghallu, and from there Yi Mongryong admired the scenery. For a long while, he refreshed his heart at the sight of the mountains, their peaks capped with clouds and the valleys where mists were sleeping. Finally, he thanked his servant for having shown him such beautiful things, and the latter, happy, joked that he should live there as a hermit. “It is true,” Yi Mongryong replied, “it is a wonderful place; why did you not bring me earlier to this charming pavilion, so that I might rest from all my hard work?” “Because I was afraid of your father,” replied the servant. Yi Mongryong silenced him and sent him away: “Enough, enough, leave me alone, go and enjoy yourself a little further off; my father is not going to scold you for providing me with a little distraction.” But as he looked toward the mountains, he noticed a girl who was swinging from the branches of a tree. He called his servant back again: “What is that?” he asked, indicating the girl. The servant, frightened and embarrassed, pretended not to * Located in the city of Namwon, Jeollanam-do, the place where Yi Mongryong and Chunhyang meet.


Romantic Tales

be able to see anything. “What, can your eyes perceive nothing over there?” Yi Mongryong said angrily. “There is a lady on a swing,” the servant finally replied. “Why did you not say so right away?” asked Yi Mongryong. “If you had first asked me if it was a lady, I would have said it was a lady. You did not ask me that, so I believed you had seen something else. But if your father learns that I have brought you here, and you have enjoyed yourself watching such things, then he will be angry with me.” “Why should my father scold you for having taken me on a walk on just one day among so many days of study? Besides, let us no longer talk about my father, and tell me if the person who is on the swing over there is married or not.” “She is unmarried,” replied the servant. “Is she from a noble family or is she a commoner?” asked Yi Mongryong. The servant replied that she was a low-class girl named Chunhyang, a name meaning “spring perfume.” “Would you,” said Yi Mongryong, “pray that girl to step this way?” His servant objected, saying that the matter presented the greatest difficulty. Yi Mongryong was surprised by his opposition, believing that, on the contrary, nothing could be simpler than to bring to him a girl of the people. His servant praised the girl’s chastity, her great virtue, saying that it would be far from easy to convince her to come to meet a young man. “What then could I do,” Yi Mongryong cried, “to have the pleasure of spending a few minutes in talk with her?” “If you are really so eager for such an interview,” said his man, Fragrant Springtime


“I can show you a good way.” “How will you do that?” Yi Mongryong asked eagerly. “I will ask your father’s permission,” answered the servant. “My father?” Yi Mongryong exclaimed in terror. “What are you saying? Do not set yourself against me, I pray you, and do not mention it to my father. You would do me great harm. I want to arrange the matter with you.” “Why not use your father?” replied the servant. “Nothing would be easier than for him to summon this girl, while I, despite all my goodwill, cannot satisfy you.” “Find some other means,” said Yi Mongryong. “I do not wish to have my father involved in all this.” “Very well; but if you use other means you will have to spend much money.” “I will spend all that it takes.” “After all,” objected the crafty servant, “if you have your mind occupied with this girl, you will think less of your education, and if your father learns that I took you away from your studies, taking you on this walk, he will use his powers as Mandarin and will put me on trial.” At these words, Yi Mongryong despaired: “Alas!” he said. “What am I to do?” He thought for a few minutes, then continued, “Very well, I will give you much money, but everything must be done without the knowledge of my father.” “Why don’t you try walking near the spot where the girl is?” suggested the servant. “I will do that!” exclaimed Yi Mongryong. They went together. Arriving near the swing, Yi Mongryong looked at the girl carefully. She was very beautiful; behind the strands of black hair that the wind swept across her face, she looked to the 16

Romantic Tales

young man like the moon between two clouds. “How beautiful she is!” thought Yi Mongryong. A smile played on her lips, her mouth was like a water-lily flower resting lightly on a pond, and as she kept swinging, she passed through the air like a swallow in f light. With the wayward tips of her toes she pushed aside the branches, bringing down showers of leaves. Her white hands, with their beautiful, long fingers, clung to the ropes. Her slim and supple figure bowed like a willow in the wind. Yi Mongryong, lost in admiration, dazzled by the sight, collapsed in deep despair. The servant pulled him to his feet, alarmed. “What are you doing?” he cried. “If you behave like this from the start, I will have everything to fear from your father and he will certainly punish me. Calm down, I beg of you; go home and then we will see how best to content you; but do not give up on the very first day.” “You’re right,” Yi Mongryong answered, “but remember that life is unstable. We are happy today, unhappy tomorrow. Who knows if I will not be dead tomorrow, so why should I not take advantage of the opportunity to speak to this young girl now?” “If that is what you think, do as you please,” said the servant. But at that moment the girl, rendered nervous at being watched, came down from off her swing, arranged her dress and set off playfully to her home. Her little feet moved hardly any faster than a turtle on sand, and ever again she lingered, picking up stones which she threw at the trees to set the birds flying. Yi Mongryong watched her and was moved even more, despairing to see her go. His servant urged him to return home, Fragrant Springtime


saying that it was best to stop there, so that his father would not find them out. He said he would find means to arrange an interview for another day. “You are right, it is impossible to stay,” stammered Yi Mongryong. And he went home like a drunken man. He went straight to greet his parents and ate with them. They asked him if he had been enjoying himself. “Oh yes, father, I saw something ravishing,” Yi Mongryong cried, “Oh! The exquisite ‘Chunhyang.’” “What do you mean, Chunhyang?” asked his father. Yi Mongryong, scared at his thoughtlessness, replied: “I mean, father, that the f lowers deliciously perfumed the springtime.” The meal ended in silence. Then Yi Mongryong went to his room, lit a candle and opened a book; but the words blurred before his eyes, and he saw everywhere the name of Chunhyang, or her beloved image on the swing, in the different attitudes which he had seen. Unable to stop thinking of her, he called his servant. “Well!” he said, “did you find any way?” “I’ll think about it all night long,” replied the servant, “and I’ll tell you tomorrow morning what I have come up with. But I beg you to put your mind at rest, keep studying tonight or lie down and sleep peacefully.” “Thank you,” sighed Yi Mongryong, “and, with the hope that you have given me, I will have peace of mind and sleep well.” His servant withdrew after wishing him a good night, saying to himself: “This is a good opportunity to earn money! But it will be difficult.” He spent some time in thought, perplexed, then suddenly 18

Romantic Tales

exclaimed: “Aha!” he said. “I have it. I will pay an old woman to go and ask Chunhyang to walk out with her to an agreed spot, then I will tell Yi Mongryong to dress as a woman and I will bring him to the same place so he can talk with the girl. Now, that’s enough, let’s sleep!” Once his servant had left him, Yi Mongryong, unable to sleep and full of memories of the beautiful young girl, opened the window and looked out. The moon was bright, the stars few. Ravens were flying southward. The wind was blowing among the bamboos, making them rattle together; the birds awoke, unable to sleep in the noise, and went flying off. The fish slept in the shadow of the branches on the pond. The sight of these things, moving Yi Mongryong, caused him to think yet more of his beloved. “I cannot stand it any longer,” he said, “I will close the window and sleep.” He lay down on his bed; but he fidgeted constantly, turning first to one side, then to the other, quite unable to close his eyes. Finally, after a long while, he fell asleep and dreamed that he was walking in Gwanghallu, where he found Chunhyang swinging from the trees, that he went to see her and she set off toward her home, playful and capricious; but he followed her, telling her many sweet things to which she made no reply. “Ah! Is then her heart as hard as stone or iron?” he thought. “How will I ever manage to reach her?” However, even more attracted by her silence, he begged her to say some word, just to hear the sound of her voice. She replied that custom required men to be separated from women and that, by thus coming home with her, he was being impolite, so that was why she did not answer him. Fragrant Springtime


Brother Anthony of TaizĂŠ

Born in England in 1942, Brother Anthony has lived in Korea since 1980. He is currently Emeritus Professor at Sogang University and Chair-Professor at the International Creative Writing Center at Dankook University. He is also the President of the Royal Asiatic Society’s Korea Branch. He has published more than 30 volumes of translations of Korean poetry and of several novels, for which he has received a number of awards. He is the co-author of The Korean Way of Tea and Korean Tea Classics, the editor of Eerie Tales from Old Korea, and has published a number of other volumes with Seoul Selection. His Korean name is An Sonjae.

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Profile for Seoul Selection

Romantic Tales from Old Korea  

There are not many old Korean love tales, but everyone knows the story of Chunhyang. In 1892, the first Korean to visit Paris, Hong Jong-u,...

Romantic Tales from Old Korea  

There are not many old Korean love tales, but everyone knows the story of Chunhyang. In 1892, the first Korean to visit Paris, Hong Jong-u,...